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Arts-Heavy Preschool Helps Children Grow Emotionally

• September 10, 2012 • 9:43 AM

New research finds low-income kids in an arts-enhanced preschool program have a more positive attitude than their peers, and are better able to manage negative emotions.

How do children learn how to learn? One essential skill is mastering their emotions – learning how to stay positive as much as possible, and how to deal with those inevitable interludes of sadness, anger or fear.

Newly published research suggests low-income kids are more likely to develop these all-important abilities if they attend a unique preschool program that integrates education and the arts.

The arts-rich curriculum produced more “positive emotions such as interest, happiness and pride, and greater growth in emotion regulation across the school year,” reports West Chester University psychologist Eleanor D. Brown.

These results are particularly significant, she adds, given “the critical importance of children’s social-emotional readiness to learn.”

The study provides more evidence of the success of Settlement Music School’s Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program. In 2009, a research team led by Brown reported participants in the program, located in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood, raised their vocabulary scores at three times the rate of peers enrolled at a nearby preschool with a traditional curriculum.

The new report, published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, points to one likely catalyst for such academic success. It suggests children in the arts-heavy preschool program were better adjusted emotionally.

Brown and her colleague, Kacey Sax, compared 174 students in the Settlement Music School preschool with 31 who attended another Head Start-certified preschool nearby. Ninety percent were from low-income families; 75 percent were African-Americans.

The Settlement program features daily music, visual arts and “creative movement” classes, taught by credentialed instructors, as well as standard early-learning classes.

Trained research assistants observed all the children at regular intervals to determine their emotional states. In addition, in the fall and again in the spring, their teachers assessed the kids’ ability to regulate their emotions. Specifically, they reported whether a child was easily frustrated, exhibited wide mood swings, and how he or she showed empathy or concern for others.

The two groups of kids exhibited roughly the same level of negative emotions. But those in the arts-enriched group “showed more interest, happiness and pride” than their counterparts. Furthermore, teacher reports indicate the arts-group members showed greater improvement in the all-important ability to understand and manage uncomfortable feelings.

“Experiences with the arts elicit a range of emotions,” Brown and Sax note, “and may help children to understand connections between events as feelings, as well as practice appropriate strategies to regulate their emotions.”

So once again, arts education is shown to be far from a frill. Rather, this study suggests it is a valuable way to help disadvantaged children develop the emotional maturity needed for success in school—and in life.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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